On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the sabbath, they were watching him closely.
When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honour, he told them a parable. “When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honour, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, ‘Give this person your place,’ and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honoured in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
He said also to the one who had invited him, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbours, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”
There was a discussion among some of my colleagues this week about how effective was our pastoral ministry when it so often consisted of simply having a cup of tea and a blether with folks.
That might not sound very effective.
It may not even sound like it's the best use of time - and certainly many of my younger colleagues felt that way.
And yet, isn't it the way that Jesus went about his ministry?
In calling folk into the Kingdom, whether gently or with challenge and even, at times, ridicule, Jesus liked to do it over supper, dinner, a picnic lunch, a barbecue, a wedding feast.
Table fellowship was important to him.
I've said time and again, that the days I find most fulfilling in ministry are those days when I've sat in folks' homes and shared coffee, admired their pictures of loved ones, been privy to awards that hang on their wall or paintings stuck on their fridge, mementoes that tell stories, some of which are shared, some that don't need to be - but all part of the bigger picture of the person with whom I'm sharing.
(It's also the reason that I fight a constant battle against weight gain- often those coffees are accompanied by home baking or other temptations!)
Sharing table fellowship deepens relationship.
Or it can - if we allow it.
Jesus got to know all sorts of things about people by sharing round their tables.
And they got to know him.
And so relationships were formed through which Jesus could show his compassion, through which Jesus could offer challenge and through which Jesus could even rebuke.
It's a simple fact that folk are more likely to listen if connections have been made, if a relationship has been formed.
At the beginning of the week, I was involved in a meeting.
There were about 12 of us around the table.
We shared coffee at the start of the meeting - most of us had travelled a fair way to get there - and then got down to business.
Since we all had a bit of a journey to get home, we decided to continue working through a sandwich lunch rather than take a break.
But as we all got what we wanted - tea, coffee, sandwiches, we caught up with each other, since there hadn't been the opportunity earlier.
I was mid conversation with someone when we realised that our colleague across the table was telling a joke - and the whole table stopped to listen.
Having shared with each other before, we recognised the change in tone - and we all knew it was worth holding off on our conversations to listen in to another.
That's what can happen in table fellowship - we can get distracted, or sucked in.
And that's not a bad thing.
It's good to be able to pick up on nuances, to catch the different emotions, to hear what is said - as well as what is not spoken out loud.
Lets never underestimate the power of a "wee cup of tea". - not just its cure all properties but its relationship forging ability and thus its gateway to loving and caring, to challenging and cajoling.
Jesus not only practiced table fellowship but used it to illustrate the Kingdom of God.
In the gospel passage we read, he was at a meal and he used the meal as a lesson on how we should be hospitable to others.
Jesus took the table plan of the meal in which he shared to teach his followers how to practice humility and how to find honour.
It would be better, Jesus told them, to sit at a lowlier place and be moved up than to take a higher place and be moved down.
We can all see that.
Even today, that makes sense.
But Jesus goes on to say that we should think carefully too about whom we invite.
Our invitation shouldn't just go to those who are likely to return the favour - but should extend beyond those bounds to those whom we know will never be able to repay our hospitality.
Now there's a challenge.
Would we be comfortable partying the night away with those who are "not like us"?
Of course we wouldn't.
When we have down time and want to chill with friends.
Or when we have something we want to share with others.
When we want to celebrate- we want to choose carefully those who are allowed in on the celebrations.
We want to choose carefully those in whom we invest our time and our effort and our hospitality.
And that's not just about them perhaps on some future occasion returning the compliment and extending an invitation to us.
That's about who we would feel comfortable with.
And while, on the odd occasion, we might just push our boundaries a bit.
While we might now and again share with someone very different from us - that would be an exception rather than the norm.
We can blame our busy lives.
We can blame our lack of free time.
We can cite many reasons why we feel the need to guard our table fellowship and restrict it to those whose company we know we will enjoy.
Still, Jesus calls us to something different.
I wondered about Jesus' table companions in this gospel story today.
In our gospel today, Jesus is eating with one of the Pharisees - a leader - not one of the people on the fringes that we often see Jesus associating with - or perhaps the "leader of the Pharisees", because of his position, is as much on the fringe as the more obvious folk with whom Jesus eats - the tax collector, the prostitute, the leper...
Folk become isolated as much because of their status as because of their lack of status.
And Jesus manages to embrace either and all.
He could get down and dirty or he could scrub up nicely.
Either way, he would embrace those with whom he shared.
Not blending in - that was never Jesus' style.
But meeting folk everywhere, however lowly or mighty with the challenge of discipleship, the challenge of inclusivity, the challenges that being part of the Kingdom of God demands.
We gather this morning to share table fellowship.
And Jesus meets us here.
Not unobtrusively but right in our faces.
Jesus, in relationship with us, reads us all too well.
Jesus meets us here - with compassion, with challenge, with ridicule and with rebuke - whatever we need, is here in this table fellowship.
Sharing table fellowship deepens relationship.
Or it can if we allow it.
As we share today, may we find ourselves becoming more open to those around us.
More open to their pain, their joy, their companionship, their hidden depths, their shyness, their awkwardness, their familiarity and their strangeness.
May we give thanks for the stories we have shared and hold gently the stories that may never be spoken out loud.
And in all of this, may we find ourselves becoming more open to the ways of the Kingdom that Jesus sets before us.
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